When you listen to a song on the radio, it’s easy to think that you know just how the singer felt when he or she wrote the lyrics. But there’s a good chance that you’re wrong because most modern songs aren’t written by the people who sing them. So the experiences that shape these songs aren’t necessarily what you’d expect.
Aretha Franklin’s hit song “Respect” is a feminist classic. The image of a proud woman standing tall and saying that all she wants is “a little respect” is an icon for women’s rights. Used as the anthem for civil rights and feminist movements, the song has never lost its staying power.
But that’s the exact opposite of what songwriter Otis Redding intended with his lyrics. Redding didn’t write the song for Aretha Franklin. Instead, he wrote it for himself. When you hear the lyrics coming out of his mouth, the song takes on a whole new meaning, especially the line “I’m about to give you all my money.”
From Aretha Franklin, that sounds like a proud woman boasting that she can be the breadwinner even in an era of unequal pay. But from Otis Redding, it’s just a cranky man saying, “Men make the money, and women spend it!” In fact, that’s the whole point of the song for Redding.
It gets worse, though. In Redding’s time, the word “respect” used to be slang for “sexual favors.” With his song, Redding is asking his wife to do a little bit more than just say “please” and “thank you.”
That’s right. The biggest feminist anthem of all time is actually a man asking a woman to give him sex in exchange for money.
9 ‘Mahna Mahna’
If there’s any song that doesn’t have a malicious meaning hiding underneath, surely it’s “Mahna Mahna,” that innocent, happy song from the Muppets that doesn’t have any words. Right?
As it turns out, “Mahna Mahna” wasn’t written by Jim Henson and it wasn’t for the Muppets. Instead, the song was written by a man named Piero Umiliani for a film called Heaven and Hell, which is a documentary about the wild sex lives of Swedish women.
The original title of the song was “Viva la Sauna Svedese” (“Hooray for the Swedish Sauna”), and it was meant to accompany a group of Swedish nymphomaniacs jumping into the sauna. That really doesn’t sound like something that Kermit the Frog would do.
But it’s no accident that “Mahna Mahna” landed on the Muppets. The song was handpicked by Jim Henson, who seems to have known exactly where the song came from.
8 ‘Total Eclipse Of The Heart’
Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is a classic. The song is a perfect expression of the all-encompassing power of human love and the hurt and addiction that often come with it.
But writer Jim Steinman, who was the man behind Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, didn’t care about any of that. In fact, Steinman didn’t write the song for Bonnie Tyler or Meatloaf. He wrote it for a scene in a musical about vampires.
The original “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was called “Vampires in Love.” The scene with the song was supposed to be a conversation between two vampires, which is why the song has so much call-and-response in it. The “Turn around, bright eyes” bit isn’t a metaphor. It’s literally someone telling someone else to turn around and look at him.
The references to “darkness” aren’t metaphors, either. They’re not talking about the darkness of the soul or a life without love. They’re talking about vampires having to stay in the dark to avoid being melted by the sun.
That changes a lot about the song, but it also makes more sense. According to Steinman, the whole vampire motif should be obvious “if anyone listens to the lyrics.”
7 The Cancan Song
The cancan has gone through a lot of changes. Today, it’s viewed as nothing more than a stereotypical French dance—a happy song that lets you kick out your feet and have fun. It’s the type of thing that you could teach your kids and feel content that they’d be doing something safe and wholesome.
But that isn’t how the French saw the cancan when it was popular. In the 1890s, the cancan was considered scandalous—a provocative display that offended nearly everybody. In fact, Moulin Rouge once advertised the cancan with a poster of a man watching the dance with his “erect” thumb sticking out near his pants.
But neither generation had it right. Originally, the cancan wasn’t about France or sex. It wasn’t even called the cancan. Instead, it was called “The Infernal Galop.” From the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld, the song was played to accompany a dance by the god Jupiter when he visits Hades. So the cancan was actually meant to teach us about mythology.
6 ‘Heart On Loan’
The song “Heart on Loan” by the Lostprophets tells the touching story of a relationship in trouble. “I won’t break and sever,” the song says. “You can’t go on with your heart on loan. Little darling, never gonna make it alone.”
The band has never directly commented on the meaning of the lyrics, but it seems like the cry of a man who can’t let go of his lover. Maybe he’s someone who’s a little manipulative and demands that things must be his way.
Actually, that was happening in singer Ian Watkins’s life when he wrote the song. It might cause some people to say that Watkins was the worst person who ever lived. But that seems excessive. After all, what did he do—rape a baby?
In fact, that’s exactly what Watkins did. He was arrested for attempting to rape an 11-month-old boy. He was also caught with 27 terabytes of child porn. According to Detective Chief Inspector Peter Doyle of South Wales Police, Watkins showed no remorse. He even sent a message to a girlfriend calling his pedophilia “mega lolz.”
Some facts of the case shed new light on the song “Heart on Loan.” For example, we found out what Watkins and his girlfriend were fighting about. Apparently, Watkins had told his girlfriend, “If you belong to me, so does your baby.”
This may mean that Watkins wouldn’t “break or sever” his pedophilic crimes. The lines about the girl who couldn’t make it on her own are probably about a sexual predator manipulating a woman into doing some truly horrible things.
Ian Watkins was convicted of 13 child sex offenses and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
5 ‘Never Learn Not To Love’
The Beach Boys
Back in the 1960s, the fun-loving, clean-cut Beach Boys released a touching love song called “Never Learn Not to Love.” Your mother may have listened to it and wistfully thought, “Maybe he’s talking about me.”
You may be glad to know that they weren’t talking about your mother. In fact, the Beach Boys didn’t write the song at all. Charles Manson did.
“Never Learn Not to Love” started off as a song called “Cease to Exist,” which Manson showed to Beach Boys’ drummer Dennis Wilson. Dennis persuaded the band to cover the song. The band tweaked the title and convinced everybody that it was a love song.
But it wasn’t.
According to a Harvard-educated professor who analyzed the song, it is about dying. Apparently, Manson’s cult was influenced by Protestantism. He believed that people needed to die and be reborn like Jesus.
Manson called his cult “a rebirth movement.” He convinced people that they were supposed to die and be reborn. Most people thought that this was a metaphor for spirituality. But apparently, Manson was being completely literal.
When the song tells you to “cease to exist” and to “give up your world,” it’s not a metaphor. The Beach Boys are telling you to kill yourself.
“Overprotected” came out at the start of that weird phase when Britney Spears married Kevin Federline and had a baby. It was her way of saying that she wasn’t going to be a safe, manufactured pop star anymore. She was going to be herself.
It worked, too. According to articles written at the time, Britney Spears was “asserting her freedom” and the song made it clear that she wasn’t going to put up with her carefully manufactured image anymore.
That sounds wonderful until you find out that Max Martin wrote it. He’s the guy who wrote every one of Spears’s biggest hits, including “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “Oops, I Did It Again.” Ironically, these songs played a major part in manufacturing her image.
Even worse, when Spears took a stand to change her fabricated image and be herself, it was actually a manufactured move designed by people who were carefully protecting her image to fit changing trends.
3 ‘The Message’
Dr. Dre’s “The Message” is a touching song released to commemorate the death of his brother. In fact, the first line of the song is, “This one is for my brother, Tyree—R.I.P.”
But that was a total surprise to rapper Royce da 5’9″, who was hired by Dre to write the lyrics to the song. Dre hadn’t asked for a song about his brother or even told Royce that his brother had died.
Royce wrote the song about the murder of one of his friends. According to his version of the story, Royce didn’t know that Dre had added a shout-out until Royce received the masters of the album. To his surprise, he heard his eulogy to his friend open with Dre calling out somebody completely different.
2 ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’
Bing Crosby’s “Do You Hear What I Hear?” gets played at churches and shopping malls every year. It’s a sweet, beautiful Christmas carol that sounds like a traditional number written hundreds of years ago. But it was actually written in 1962, and it’s about more than the birth of Christ. It’s about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Although Crosby made the song a hit, it was written by a man named Noel Regney. Although he had survived a world war, he was terrified by the buildup of nuclear weapons around the world. He feared imminent nuclear destruction.
According to his story, he was also inspired by two babies smiling at each other. That’s why the song starts with the line “Said the night wind to the little lamb.” He imagined the song as a message to these children.
The message was one of peace—partly in a spiritual way but also in a more literal way. Although it was a Christmas song, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was also meant to be a protest against the Cold War.
This changes the perceived meaning of the lyrics quite a bit. “A star dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite” doesn’t do a great job of describing the star over Bethlehem. But it might be a perfect description of a nuclear bomb in flight.
1 ‘Le Freak’
“Le Freak” is an old disco song that opens with the command, “Freak out!” It’s not the type of song that invites deep interpretation. It’s fairly clear that “le freak” is “chic” and that it’s a “new dance craze.”
But there’s actually a bit more to the song.
The meaning is clearer with the original lyrics, which were “F—k off, Studio 54.” The song was written to commemorate a rough night. The band had been invited to Studio 54 by Grace Jones, but they were kicked out when they came to the door.
They went home and wrote an extremely vulgar song as a petty act of revenge, only to realize that they had just accidentally written their biggest hit. So the line “f—k off” was changed to more the radio-friendly “freak out.”
But the verses remained the same. Those lines about “Just come on down” aren’t sincere invitations to start dancing. They’re the group grumbling about Grace Jones and Studio 54.